In the grand tradition of St. Patrick’s Day and…well, that’s it, we find ourselves on the brink of that uniquely American phenomenon, the Secular Drinking Holiday Celebrating a Culture You Are Not a Part of by Co-Opting Random Bits of It.
We get it: Salsa—delicious and fundamental! Margaritas in vast quantities—seems like a phenomenal idea at the time, every time! (Omitted for space reasons: the 2,378,947 other incredible aspects of Mexican culture that we are grateful for, including but in no way limited to Norteño music, the works of Octavio Paz, mole poblano, rebozos, la Guelaguetza, the Mayan civilization in general, and those incredible dioramas of skeletons having the best time ever in the afterlife.)
And yet Cinco de Mayo can veer so, so quickly into Cinco de Weirdly Racist Douchebaggery.
Think of it this way: If, for some reason, there was a holiday celebrating a little-known battle between the ancient Israelites and the Amalekites that no one in Israel really celebrates but had somehow become a thing here(*), it would be very deeply weird for gentiles to throw on yarmulkes, shout random Hebrew phrases and drink Manischewitz until the streets ran purple with sickly sweet vomit. Even though, to be fair, Everyone’s a Jew and Also Drunk Day does sound kind of fun, we still would not do it.
(*Really: Cinco de Mayo is not particularly a thing in Mexico, except for in the city of Puebla, where the miraculous victory over the French army on the date in question was pulled off. September 16 is when Mexico celebrates its independence from Spanish rule with the perfectly named El Grito de Independencia, or The Cry of Freedom.)
So here, as a public service, we present a Q&A about how not to be awful this Cinco de Mayo:
Q: Does any of the following apply to people who are Mexican-American or have significant and ongoing ties to that community, or are genuinely looking forward to a chance to respectfully witness and enjoy folk music, dance, and art?
Q: What’s wrong with drinking Modelo until the fabric of the space-time continuum seems to rip and/or I accidentally sext my aunt?
A: Not a damn thing. Well, until the aunt part anyway. But call a spade a spade: You’re not celebrating Cinco de Mayo or some higher cultural good. You’re celebrating the latest victory in the long war of attrition you wage against your liver and your boss’s good graces.
May you dress up like a racist caricature? No. No, you may not.
Q: Wait. Are you saying that it’s inappropriate to celebrate other cultures?
A: Not at all! Mexican culture is well worth celebrating. However, the Venn diagram between “appreciating the art, music, cuisine, and countless intangible contributions of a group that is fundamental to the American tapestry” and “shouting ‘Olé!’ after taking a shot of Sauza” is just two lonely circles, miles and miles apart, never to meet.
Q: May I dress up like a Mexican?
A: What…what do you mean by that? Like…wearing pants and a shirt?
Q: No! You know, like, throw on a sombrero and a poncho, maybe draw a mustache on my face?
A: May you dress up like a racist caricature? No. No, you may not. Hot tip: In general, dressing up as an entire ethnic group is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad plan. Every time.
Q: So…so what can I do?
A: I don’t know, man. Just be a normal human being. Support a local restaurant or business you love, eat some chips and salsa if you’re so moved.
Q: What does it say about the American character that we feel a need to dress up a random drinking day in cultural veneer and offensive mimicry in the service of frat bros and sauced-up suburban moms everywhere?
A: Oh, man, I wish I knew.